Acclaim for The Roman Forum Project



Jan. 2004:

The Roman Forum is included on Ravi Narasimhan's list of 10 best L.A. area shows of the last three years. Reason: "The multimedia production was a scathing indictment of the 2000 elections, staged in the heart of Orange County."



Tyler Stallings
Curator of Exhibitions, Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, California

Janelle Reinelt
Author of After Brecht: British Epic Theater

Maria Fernandez and Simon Penny
Maria Fernandez is the editor of Domain Errors: Cyberfeminist Practices. Simon Penny is the editor of Critical Issues in Electronic Media

Richard A. Leo
Editor of The Miranda Debate: Law, Justice, and Policing

Danila Korogodsky
Head of Set Design, California State University Long Beach

Lise Patt
Director, Institute of Cultural Inquiry, Los Angeles

Ravi Narasimhan
Los Angeles Theatregoer and Adjunct Associate Professor / Associate Research Physicist, UCLA Dept. of Physics and Astronomy

Ulysses Jenkins
Professor of Video, University of California, Irvine

The Roman Forum Project

by Tyler Stallings

The Roman Forum Project does a wonderful job of overlaying history and time, comparing the politics and process of debate from centuries ago with those of contemporary America. I was especially struck by their stage imagery, which I still cannot remove from my thoughts. For example, the ghostly white living statue actress in front of a video projection of the Republican Convention's victory party with images of balloons descending from a convention center's high ceiling, which suggested both microscopic cells and stars in a universe, and also celebratory props. Such an image is an example of how The Roman Forum Project shows that politics and ideas can infect both the body politic and the real body, attempting to change a society or an individual from within. I also applaud the circular stage that trapped the audience on the inside of it, with the living-statue-actors moving about as if in a parallel universe, speaking a discourse that seems foreign yet very familiar, especially when it came to revisiting the voting in Florida. As curator of contemporary art I appreciated their work on both a visual level and a performance level, and bemoaned that there is not more like it in the southern California region.

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Public Performance: Theatrical Forums

by Janelle Reinelt

How to understand The Roman Forum Project in terms of performance? Performance itself is always a form of public discourse, just as town hall meetings, House of Commons debates, or campaign stump speeches are forms of performance. The Roman Forum that serves as the historical background for the performance The Roman Forum Project was, likewise, a theatrical forum. Performance exists as a relationship between performers and spectators; it is dialogic, even when the spectators do not directly "talk back" to the performers. Thus it is fundamentally a form of democratic practice, of the practice of democracy.

What aspects of public discourse are still viable in our highly mediatized society? How does performance figure in attempts to map expressions of popular sovereignty? In a culture of simultaneous and speedy transmission of communication, can people really perform for each other or is such performance archaic?

As Antoinette LaFarge and Robert Allen designed The Roman Forum Project, the dramaturgy constructs several levels of performance that make use of fragments of various kinds of public performances. Some dialogue borrows from actual political speeches, theatricalizing utterances that have already been designed for public performance, while other dialogue comes from actors improvising in real time, foregoing the composition of speech designed for public sites but foregrounding the plurality of citizen's voices as they respond to contemporary political events. Actors are playing Roman historical figures who also reference contemporary political leaders, embodying the repetition of rhetorical tropes throughout history. Meanwhile, the internet chat room dialogue, as well as the real-time spectators at the site of performance, represent and practice the emerging and "fresh" discourse of this time and place.

Political theorist Chantal Mouffe writes in The Democratic Paradox that the defining marker of modern, as opposed to ancient, democracy is the acceptance of pluralism: "Once pluralism is recognized as the defining feature of modern democracy, we can ask what is the best way to approach the scope and nature of a pluralist democratic politics. My contention is that it is only in the context of a perspective according to which 'difference' is construed as the condition of possibility of being that a radical democratic project informed by pluralism can be adequately formulated." One premise of The Roman Forum Project insists on the mingling of a plurality of voices and perspectives in constructing public history. The mediatized spectacle of political oratory accompanies but does not displace the ordinary speculation of daily life.

The election crisis of 2000 in which the final decision was not made by the electorate but by the Supreme Court becomes, in The Roman Forum Project, a harbinger of a slide away from representative democracy, and from Republic into Empire, as the public space of political life gives way to private greed, corruption, or in some cases, simple stupidity. An effective comic scene carries the absurdity of the vote counting in Florida to its logical extreme: hanging chad, swinging chad, dimpled chad, pregnant chad. What was excised from American political life in the debasement of vote into chad is the aspect of the forum--the space of debate and discussion that guarantees public participation and governance by meaningful laws. The votes that, damaged and broken, no longer signify voters become an image of the loss of participatory politics.

LaFarge and Allen provide a glimpse of a functional Republic as Cicero talks about what it's like to vote in Vermont: "They have town meeting days still, and they have a very small population, divided up in such a way that they practice democracy as it used to be. . . . And I had to go to city hall in Burlington, where I lived at the time, and they made me raise my hand and promise to vote my conscience and not be persuaded by anything else. It was worded so simply and beautifully. . .sincerely, I wept. It was the essence of the idea, to see what the common people thought, the ones who wanted to vote and took the time to think about things." The issue, for Cicero, is that small is beautiful, or at least necessary to the function of civic participation. "Maybe we're too big to function as a whole," he says, speaking of America and Rome simultaneously.

The performance itself, however, does not slip into nostalgia for an unattainable romantic image of New England life; rather, through the various scenes and voices, fragments and techniques, the performance cobbles together a construction of public deliberation and representation in advanced capitalism. It juxtaposes icons of mediatized leadership (George Bush, Trent Lott, Robert Byrd) with whispers of "common people." Because of the deliberate theatricalization of the roles--the actors, as actors, assume historical/contemporary political characters--the performance constructs a public space where the spectators at this particular event interact with actors who are in the event, and with other actors who are also "in the event" but at different locations via the internet, while simultaneously taking into account the chat room opinions of further anonymous Americans. The space is, then, a virtual forum defying the boundaries of an actual geographical space while insisting on the interpenetration of a plurality of modalities for democratic practice. Thus while the performance can mount a critique of the nature of postmodern political life by representing the loss of voice of the citizens, it can also enable new forms of voicing public opinion by bringing together and activating several modalities of discourse and deliberation. Post-show discussions add an additional layer to the Forum idea, but even if such discussions are not always held after performances, spectators carry their impressions and thoughts about the performance with them in their daily life. In powerful performances, these effects can last for some time.

To ask about the uses of technology in this performance piece is to rehearse these issues of political theory by other means. Video streaming allows the juxtaposition of mediatized and live action, so that when Quintus steps in front of a green-screen, and live video of him is mixed with slowed-down footage of Bush giving the 2003 State of the Union address, a disturbing series of effects are created. In LaFarge's script, Quintus is giving a "video will" as President Bush, in which, looking back on his life/presidency, he is full of apology. The technology produces a knowledge of the "canned" nature of his performance while also uncomfortably insisting on his fleshly embodiedness--he is live and mediated. Part of the challenge of conscious citizenship now is to deliberate mindfully on the fleshly referent when limited to the presence of the virtual signifier. The live and the virtual are a mistaken binary; they actually imply and interpenetrate each other, another way of saying that virtual actions have material effects, (as bombing and other recent military action makes abundantly clear). As with the invocation of Vermont town hall meetings, the point is not nostalgia for a former time when all performance was live; rather, the point is that citizens might build a new competency through performance for the virtual era. . . one in which reading the links between virtual and material, or rather more specifically, symbolic and material, would be part of the apparatus of literacy necessary to the 21st century citizen of post-industrial democracy.

While LaFarge and Allen have produced a very novel and cutting-edge demonstration of non-traditional performance, they have also called upon and incorporated several "classical" theatre traditions. LaFarge has called the style of The Roman Forum Project "media commedia ," referring to the Italian Renaissance's improvised scenarios in which set characters with predicable characteristics were ingeniously impersonated by actors known for their individual lazzi (or shtick). The actual dialogue was easily changed to accommodate current events in the towns where these traveling players performed, and thus topicality combined with appreciation of the actor's craft to give viewers a feeling of direct participation in and knowledge of the performances.

Of course, Quintus Roscius, one of the Roman characters, is named for the actual Roman comic actor, and there are traditions of both Roman and Greek mimes in ancient street performances as well. However, the references to theatrical history that are embedded on the surface of the text are less crucial to the dramaturgy of this spectacle than are the theatrical techniques associated with the work of Bertolt Brecht. Epic Theatre, as he called his work until near his death when he changed his terminology to "Dialectical Theatre," was designed to create spectators who thoughtfully read dramatic sign systems in terms of their contradictions and their peculiarities, and his political goal was to stimulate informed citizens who would participate in making political change. LaFarge and Allen do not have a concrete political program as did Brecht the socialist, but they do have a commitment to fostering the kind of spectatorial literacy that will enable engaged civic behavior in a pluralistic democracy. "A theatre that makes no contact with the public is a nonsense," Brecht wrote in 1926. In The Roman Forum Project, the actors appear putting on their makeup, thus making their choice to portray fictional characters part of what is depicted. They depict, then, Roman figures who also assume contemporary personae. Showing the artifice of the theatre was always one of Brecht's means of making spectators aware of the fabrication of representation, through the technology of the theatre. In a media-saturated world, literate citizens will need to know globally in order to act locally. Part of global knowledge will be the tension between media apparati and ethico-political embodiment. Writing about how his actors should achieve his Epic effects, Brecht describes theatre as such a forum: "The attitude he [the actor] adopts is a socially critical one. In his exposition of the incidents and in his characterization of the person he tries to bring out those features which come within society's sphere. In this way his performance becomes a discussion (about social conditions) with the audience he is addressing." In this context, The Roman Forum Project provides an epic spectacle that conditions its audience through the approach of its actors to the topical incidents they are portraying, while historicizing them by suggesting analogies to the transition of Rome from Republic to Empire.

Robert Allen's direction, too, recalls Brecht's in its physicality and precision. However it reflects his time with Ann Bogart, as well, whose contemporary American actor training has shaped physical action, gesture, and the body to define a type of approach she calls "Viewpoints." The difference between a more didactic approach to political theatre and one in keeping with pluralistic democracy can be seen in comments Bogart might have written to describe Allen's work: "It is not difficult to lock down meaning and manipulate response. What is trickier is to generate an event or a moment which will trigger many different possible meanings and associations."

By creating a performance that problematizes our political life in an age of diminished civic participation and seemingly bankrupt democratic institutions, LaFarge and Allen entertain and provoke the sense of a rapidly changing society in which there is no going back, but there is perhaps a kind of going forward through forms of public discourse as old as performance and as new as today's technology.

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Review of The Roman Forum Project

by Maria Fernandez and Simon Pennny

Five Romans--a slave, an empress, a famous orator, an actor, and a literary figure--examine the political condition of the United States during and after the controversial presidential elections of 2000. Clearly marked as ghosts by their white faces, bodies and costumes, the dead deliberate on recent events in U.S. history, drawing on their life experiences during the Roman empire and on their subsequent witnessing of world history from beyond the grave.

The five Romans reflect on the duration and the development of empires, on war, on democracy, on justice and class struggles. The spectacle interweaves diverse historical narratives, viewpoints, and temporalities as the characters consider and also inhabit contemporary personalities and events by engaging in multiple role plays. As common citizens, Supreme Court judges, senators, and the president of the United States are impersonated by the Roman ghosts, analogies both profound and mischievous are drawn between the decay of Rome and our own times.

The physical location of the performance is equally complex. At the Beall Center for Art and Technology at UC Irvine, the actors performed on a central raised stage and on catwalks around the walls of the space, sometimes in more than one location, as the audience drifted around the space. All walls were video projection screens, and the screen action provided a counterpoint for the actors. At times, a live actor was mixed into live video on the screen, appearing embodied and on the screen. At other times live scrolling text from online participants was displayed wall-size. The energetic dead Romans coexisted and sometimes merged with incorporeal media images making evident the spectrality inherent in history, politics and media. Thus the piece instantiated multiple hauntings. Despite the complete lack of any conventional props and scenery the play was continuously visually arresting.

In its constant interweaving of narrative, the production asserts the impossibility of an absolute or authoritative voice. Likewise, its layered manipulation of media spectacle emphasises the fluidity underpinning the semblance of objectivity in the electronic image. In a period marked by permanent warfare, paranoia, erosion of civil liberties and increased repression of creativity and criticality, the Roman Forum Project could not be more timely. The production thus makes a powerful gesture toward the reassertion of the power of performance to awaken political awareness, both through its content and its form.

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The Roman Forum Project

by Richard A. Leo

The Roman Forum Project is a brilliant, and brilliantly performed, critical reflection on the management of political life in America, the triumph of form (and image) over substance, contradictions in the American polity and the duplicity of recent political events (the Supreme Court's giving of the 2000 presidential election to the Republicans among them). It is a tour de force presentation, sure to inspire reflection, awe and ire. I recommend it for audiences across the country, particularly in light of recent political events (i.e., a public and media largely quiescent about the War in Iraq--despite the failure of our government to put forth a coherent rationale for killing innocent people--and the upcoming presidential election in 2004).

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The Roman Forum Project

by Danila Korogodsky

Theater takes many forms and one of the rarest is Political Theater. Even more rare is Political Theater that matters and does not just mention themes or try to use political issues to capitalize on its "relevance". We live in a climate where it is more and more difficult to voice your artistic opinion and be heard. That is why I think artists must engage more actively in trying to reflect on the current situation in American life. The Roman Forum Project 2003 is doing just that. It raises the issues and faces the situations that are otherwise largely overlooked, it tries to point light at some of the darkest and dirtiest corners of our political life, and it does that with force, inventiveness, and humor.

I would also like to mention that the show employs a language of theater which is very contemporary and innovative. The meaning of the show and its form are truly united because the form of the performance is all about a flow of ideas and images, it has a kaleidoscopic nature just like society and democracy--the very things that are being endangered in reality and investigated in the show. I would think that it is crucially important to have a continuation of a public discussion about the issues and themes raised in the production. This show needs to have a future. The voice of the theater needs to be heard in a public discourse about the current direction of American politics. The Roman Forum Project 2003 is a show that does this.

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The Roman Forum Project

by Ravi Narasimhan

UC Irvine presented an unfortunately brief run of The Roman Forum Project recently at the College's Beall Center for Art and Technology. The multimedia show takes very direct aim at the 2000 Elections, 9/11, and American interventionist policy. An ensemble of physically gifted actors dressed as Roman marble statues look through the centuries into post-2000 America with perceptive eyes and trenchant mouths. The audience stands while the performers move in and around them, soliloquy here, tetralogue there. Video screens blend live action with taped footage and comments from viewers watching the event over a Webcast. Co-creators Antoinette LaFarge and Robert Allen are particularly interested in movement and dance, and that sensibility informs all aspects of the Forum, which began at the 2000 Democratic National Convention and which has changed with the turbulent times that have followed.

This is a politically very incorrect piece and takes a stand that will not play well in many, if not most, parts of the country. It is at first surprising that such an anti-establishment work, almost polemic in its thrusts, found life in the heart of conservative Orange County. It is a testament to the best traditions of our society that it was born there, played there, and that many community members were engaged by it even though they may have disagreed strongly with its message. This is the power of live performance and the courage to take risks.

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The Alternate Universe of The Roman Forum Project

by Lise Patt

In The Roman Forum Project, Antoinette LaFarge and Robert Allen have brought together avant-garde theater, digital art media, and popular cultural parables to create a biting commentary on the (often-failed) American political system. In a number of fast-paced scenes that playfully shift between the language of art and interlocution, the artists strip the "American Democracy" bare and expose it for what it truly is, a "Republic." Statue and statute may be neighbors in the standard English dictionary, but in the world LaFarge and Allen have so skillfully crafted, the proximity of these words is more than just a coincidence. What happens when a statute takes on the attributes of a statue--becoming cold and hardened? In The Roman Forum Project, this turns out not to just be a rhetorical question. Because the production is not only an art installation or a screening of video projections or a tamed version of street theater but all combined and more--it becomes an immersive environment in which the "complacent" American voter is transformed into an active citizen in a strange, often arresting, and yet hauntingly familiar alternate universe.

Initially we may be surprised that in invoking politics, the artists have not plopped us down in that constructed world traditionally used to position political shenanigans--that of history. Instead, LaFarge and Allen propose that the alternate reality of the Internet may offer us the most deft tools for navigating the maze-like webs of our own political system. Like our present-day government, the network of cyberspace is often characterized as duplicitous and full of hidden alliances. It has slippery terrains that are surfed and googled. It confuses our notions of time and space, and makes us feel both hopelessly anonymous and mercilessly omnipotent. As we stand in the space of the Forum and laugh at the comedy of errors that results from a dangling chad, perhaps it is the Internet that has taught us that such lunacies are not only comical in the playful moment of a present-day "hit" but that they can often carry with them inescapable implications for our future.

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Considering The Roman Forum Project

by Ulysses Jenkins

In a time when cultural significance and/or relevance should be contemplated, all too often what emerges is the byproduct of the momentary "loss of memory." Fortunately, a stimulating, refreshing reminder has been created in the form of the multimedia performance production by Antoinette LaFarge and Robert Allen: The Roman Forum Project. For if you weren't paying attention in the fall of 2000 with the emergence of the brave new world that was up for grabs in the U.S. presidential election--well, this production not only reconstructs many of the crucial elements but burrows even deeper to the core structure of Western civilization (hence the title of the work).

The Roman Forum Project represents a visual, allegorical flashback that not only appears timeless but, in its costuming, reconstructs the statuary of ancient Rome while questioning the status quo. It is both an expressive reflection upon what democracy was conceived to be and a view of its current incarnations with all blemishes exposed. Its introductory commentary (courtesy of Lord Alexander Tytler) alerts us that the average longevity of the world's great civilizations is two hundred years before a cavalcade of evolutionary consequences takes over, so that what starts from bondage and progresses to liberty then moves on to selfishness, complacency, apathy, and dependency before returning to bondage. What better way to begin a reexamination of the most significant event in the history of Western democracy: the election contest between George Walker Bush and Al Gore?

This production proceeded to not only investigate the obvious but to venture into the past, as if the spirits of the past are annoyed by all the goings-on in the present. And as this writer had the opportunity to view both the first (2000) and second (2003) versions of this work, I will just note that the original work was presented in another context, that of the selection process of the Democratic Party's Convention in Los Angeles. With a unique creative foresight and vision, the artists constructed a work based on the current events of that convention as they were reported by the news media. That reportage was utilized as a conceptual structure for the script and intertwined with the history of the Roman forum to form the backdrop for a debate on the ethical merits of the political progression of the convention. Both versions of this work explored the power of simultaneous, timely debate and critique versus the mediated documentation distributed in fragmented sound bites and political slogans for mass public consumption. In addition, The Roman Forum Project of 2003 was not only produced live but was also carried live on the internet via video streaming video.

The current incarnation takes the earlier premise further inasmuch as it digs much deeper into the consequences of the aftermath of all the parties (literally and metaphorically), reflecting on democracy in action through the evolutionary discrepancies in the election of George W. Bush. The characterizations by the actors were stunning--the referential positions they occupy as reincarnated statues speak to the issues, from the manipulations of voting irregularities to the state of Florida's indecisiveness in the legislature and its state judiciary's injudicious actions, particularly when it came to protecting voters' rights or the age-old rights of the individual to equal representation through the right to vote. Not to mention the varied degrees of premeditated discrimination that eliminated enormous numbers of poor and minority voters; or the feuds over whether military votes were mailed on time or were able to be counted more than once. All of which became a psychodramatic call for a recounting and reexamination of ballots and validation of the "chad" in all its identities: hanging, swinging, dimpled, pregnant.

This work continues its investigative theme with an indictment of the corrosion of the federal authorities. It could be construed as constitutional misappropriation by the U.S. Supreme Court when the decision is made to end the counting of ballots and declare the election over, with the Supreme Court justices voting along straight party lines to ordain the next president of the free world.

As The Roman Forum Project proceeds, it emulates a display of political media messages with a well-choreographed use of space that creates variable constructs of computer graphics and digital video projections. These are interspersed in the performing and screening areas, with performers and media often combined, raising questions pertaining to why we are attracted by media, and who are we attracting, and to what end, and at what cost to whom.

In conclusion, this composition measures our ability to remember the essentials of our democratic legacy in a time when the right to speak freely, regardless of political correctness, is under threat. These are the measured equations by which the rest of the world views our existence, the elements that set this culture apart--and yet seemingly are providing naysayers the opportunity to point out that the emperor hasn't any clothes. This is a work sorely needed to be witnessed, and there is no more opportune time than just before this nation participates in the quadrennial democratic ritual again--one person, one vote! As regards problems and their solutions, one may see the nature of assumptions on which the artists proceed in the following remark by Aristotle: "The poet being an imitator just like the painter or maker of likenesses, he must necessarily in all instances represent things in one of three aspects, either as they were or are, or as they are said or thought to be or to have been, or as they ought to be."

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